The Achilles of ancient Greek legend is often counted among the greatest of epic heroes for his fantastical exploits during the Trojan War as depicted by Homer in the Iliad. While it is easy to become seduced by the power and might of invincible Achilles we must remember to not confuse unchecked power with heroism. While Achilles is indeed powerful, a master warrior by all qualifications, he fails as a hero to be imitated or idolized due to his lack of restraint, his barbarity, his lack of a code of conduct, his impiety and his dishonorable behavior.
Achilles wields great courage and fortitude but he is also is critically deficient in the other (perhaps more important) cornerstones of the epic hero: temperance, prudence and a sense of justice or magnanimity. It is the intemperance of the man, famously referred to as the “rage of Achilles,” which is perhaps his tragic flaw, a failing which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of untold scores of Greeks and Trojans and nearly spelled complete destruction for the Greek fleet.
Driven by his ill-tempered thirst for glory and prizewinning, Achilles is unable to control himself in the face of humiliation and defeat. It is this character flaw which makes the son of Peleus an unacceptable role model. We begin the Iiad with Achilles already in a rage as victory in the Trojan War, the epic confrontation between Ilium and Hellas sprung from the Trojan abduction of Helen of Troy from her lawful Greek husband Menelaus, looms overhead, the Greeks having finally sacked one of the last remaining Trojan allied towns and now preparing to march on the glorious city of Troy itself.
In the looting of the town the Greek King Agamemnon had claimed Chryseis as a war prize while Achilles claimed Briseis. The father of Chryseis, a man by the name of Chryses who was a priest of Apollo, having pleaded for his daughters return and having been rebuffed by Agamemnon soon called upon his god for aid who unleashed a series of plagues on the Greek fleet in retribution for the theft. While Agamemnon stubbornly refused to return the girl, Achilles called forth a council of the Greek officers to come to a solution in hopes of relieving the fleet from the wrath of Apollo.
Agamemnon opted to return Chryseis but also demanded Achilles surrender Briseis and in doing so dishonored him publicly and stole his glory. The reaction from Achilles was immediate, “the son of Peleus was furious, and his heart within his shaggy breast was divided whether to draw his sword, push the others aside, and kill the son of Atreus, or to restrain himself and check his anger. ” Achilles and his myrmidons, the only force capable of defeating the Trojan prince Hector and his host, would stubbornly refuse to fight in order to spite the king.
Achilles spent the next months brooding with fury in his beachside command tent accompanied by his dear friend Patroclus as the Greeks were pushed further and further from the walls of Troy and to the brink of destruction by the seemingly unstoppable Hector. When it became clear that Hectors forces would soon completely overrun the Greek beachhead and burn the landing ships, leaving the Hellenes stranded, surrounded by enemy and cut off from supply, Achilles still refused to flinch and allowed his countrymen to be slaughtered rather than defend them.
Instead of meeting the responsibilities which accompanied his demigodhood Achilles was content instead to remain idle, even after in book IX Agamemnon pleaded to surrender all of his prizes if just the warrior would return to the field. Nor would even the grave concerns of Ajax, Odysseus and Phoenix, Achilles’ “very dear friends” and champions of the Greek federation in their own right, would sway the proud Achilles to action who exclaimed “[he would be] appeased neither by Agamemnon son of Atreus nor by any other of the Danaans, for [he saw] that [he had] no thanks for all [his] fighting” (Homer).
Achilles only responded after Patroclus, in an effort to inspire the demoralized Greeks and rout the advancing Trojans, donned the armor of Achilles and charged forth against Hector, who slew him outright. Achilles now channeled his rage away from Agamemnon who he perceived as betraying him and displaced it on Hector, joining the fight against the Trojans in a blind rage. Achilles’ final decision to rejoin the Greek campaign was not out of a sense of duty or love for his fellow countrymen but rather served as a device for vengeance and release of bloodlust.
Rather than temper the initial embarrassment of Agamemnon incurred during the loss of his prize woman, aiding in the final push on Troy and ending the campaign without undue bloodshed, the selfish Achilles resorted to negligent and reckless behavior, allowing his countrymen, who had done him no wrong and who he had called brothers in the years preceding the blunder of the king, to perish before Hector. Achilles had in himself the power to preserve life and instead of wielding it for good instead used it to gratify his own ego and
perceived insults with the blood of Trojans. This behavior is unbecoming of a great hero and is humbled by the excellent example of modest and temperate Aeneas who in Vergils Aeneid would come to wield power reluctantly and always with prudence and a just direction. The psychological flaw of Achilles is in his failure to differentiate between what is in his control and what is outside of his control, a realization central to the philosophy of Stoicism which had come to be the de facto religion of the educated elite by the time of Vergil (Murray 25).
As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said in aphorism I of the Enchiridion “some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions. ” When we attempt to control or expect things not in our control to behave in a certain way most of us at the very least experience a sense of frustration, while a perceived injustice of some magnitude may manifest itself as anger or even rage.
Achilles expects other people to respect his glory, expects others to behave in an honorable way, and thus becomes enraged when a force outside of his control, Agamemnon, seemingly commits an injustice against him. Achilles is the driver who consistently becomes offended when others on the road behave erratically and degrades himself by always falling prone to the same anger and faulty judgment about the nature of the world. A nobler, more heroic man is aware of what in his control and what is outside of his control and is cognizant that the opinions and actions of others are nothing to him as they cannot be ruled by him.
The true insult to Achilles was not his woman being stolen but his own behavior in how he dealt with it: instead of enduring something which he had no control over and pushing onward in order to fulfill his duty he abandoned it and in doing so abandoned the good life. Instead of focusing on how best he could control what is in his power (his own actions, decisions and judgments), Achilles became obsessed with an injustice inflicted against him which he was powerless in righting and so unmade himself. Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations summarized heroic temperance and magnanimity the best (17):
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliess of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.
We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions. While the body of Achilles was tempered for battle his mind was prone to weakness, he allowed himself to lose control of himself and surrender his body to the opinions and motives of others, easily seduced by external things and capricious glories, his conduct was thus unbecoming of a heroic individual and more similar to that of a spoiled child.
Instead of acting with magnanimity and attempting to show Agamemnon the error of his ways with grace and civility Achilles instead damned his countrymen to a death sentence and in doing so revealed his own nature as a pirate and mercenary only willing to fight for prizes and public honors. The hero realizes that prizes and glories of the world are in transitory flux and the only proper virtue of our labor is the dream of a better tomorrow. Again, we must refer to the example of pious Aeneas who endured great humiliation in fleeing his home in hope of offering a future to his people.
We may also refer to better examples of conduct from the real world Romans themselves. The people of Rome venerated the semi-mythical figure of Cincinnatus who unflinchingly abandoned his farm and family to repel the Gauls as the ideal role model (Livy) and found the incorruptible and austere Cato the Younger who dared to resist the tyranny of Gaius Julius for sake of upholding his duty to the republic as a living example of the embodiment of their national pride, so inspiring his compatriots to virtue and integrity (Plutarch 257).
Both men embodied the Stoic heroic virtues of temperance, prudence, justice and courage and were interpreted by Livy and Plutarch respectively as being ideal Romans: men who heroically served the community of the republic with no compromise and held loyalty not to individuals or to gods but the idea of what Rome could become, who laid down their lives in dutiful service, with no complaints.
Aeneas, Cato and Cincinnatus stand as more noble and heroic role models in the stead of the prize-seeking and dangerously erratic Achilles. The rage of Achilles, unchecked by the superior virtues of temperance and prudence, would come to further tragically undermine his character and eclipse his glory. With the return of Achilles in book XXI to the field of battle following the sacrifice of Patroclus the Trojans were soon beaten back to the river Xanthus.
Achilles routed the Trojan forces and sent them into a panicked retreat which split into two columns, one in flight heading over the plain leading to Troy herself while the “other half [was] hemmed in by the deep silver-eddying stream, and fell into it with a great uproar” (Homer). Here Achilles had another chance to profess his character by acting magnanimously, mercifully and pardoning his broken enemies by sparing their lives or at the most capturing them. Instead Achilles dove into the river by himself in rage and began a great slaughter.
When Achilles became exhausted from slaughtering the fleeing soldiers “he drew twelve youths alive out of the water, to sacrifice in revenge for Patroclus son of Menoetius” (Homer). The bloodlust of Achilles was not stayed by the blood of the soldiers or of the youths and he soon came upon a son of King Priam of Troy called Lycaon who had by then just reached the other side of the river in flight. After throwing himself at the mercy of Achilles, hugging his knees and professing his friendship the boy was gutted through the throat following a string of insults and mockeries.
The dead were thrown and bled into the river, which to the Greeks was also interpreted to be a god called Skamandros (Tsotakou-Karveli) and so Achilles committed a sacrilegious impiety, taunting the god and violently attacking it. As if the rage of Achilles was approaching allegorical proportions he still yet was not satisfied, now leading the men of Hellas in a direct attack on the city of Troy with equal barbarity and lack of restraint by book XXII of the Iliad.
When mighty Hector, second only to the captain of the myrmidons, rose to engage Achilles in mortal combat and was slain, his body was desecrated by being stripped of its armor and soon the son of Peleus “…treated the body…with contumely: he pierced the sinews at the back of both his feet from heel to ancle and passed thongs of ox-hide through the slits he had made: thus he made the body fast to his chariot, letting the head trail upon the ground” (Homer).
Here we again observe the intemperance of Achilles undermining his character and restricting him from behaving in a heroic and inspiring fashion. Achilles is too bound to things outside of his control and is unable to release himself from their cleaving nature, instead of realizing that time is only momentary and fades in an instant Achilles tries with all his will to hang onto rage generated over his setbacks and humiliations in order to hang onto the past which is now nothing but smoke.
Achilles would do well to adopt the wisdom in Epictetus’ aphorism III of the Enchiridion: With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed.
If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies. Achilles is bound at the hip to the memory of Patroclus and is ignorant to the nature of the world: we are powerless to things outside our control, including the destruction of our body, and thus must drift with rather than against the river. Patroclus was a man in a war and his nature was to die or take life with his premature death not being the fault of the Trojans but rather the inaction of Achilles.
While Achilles “punishes” the Trojans by slaughtering them and treating them with viciousness and desecration he should instead be reprimanding himself and striving to return a sense of justice to the war while inspiring his men to behave nobly and excellently. When Achilles slays Hector in book XXII it is not done in a dignified manner for purposes of justice but rather to gratify the bloodlust of the myrmidon king, as can be judged from his disrespectful monologue directed toward the fading and mortally wounded Trojan prince:
Dog, talk not to me neither of knees nor parents; would that I could be as sure of being able to cut your flesh into pieces and eat it raw, for the ill have done me, as I am that nothing shall save you from the dogs- it shall not be, though they bring ten or twenty-fold ransom and weigh it out for me on the spot, with promise of yet more hereafter. Though Priam son of Dardanus should bid them offer me your weight in gold, even so your mother shall never lay you out and make lament over the son she bore, but dogs and vultures shall eat you utterly up.
Achilles is unable to remove himself from the lust of glory, a caprice which fades with time and means nothing in the scope of things. Instead of treating those he encounters with justice the captain of the myrmidons instead treats people as if they are pawns or enemies, judging their worth on whether or not they can help him achieve a false conception of glory, in truth, a self-justification for his barbaric behavior. One only has to ask: if all men behaved as Achilles, would we live in a sustainable and enlightened age free of vice and undue suffering?
If the answer is ‘no’ then Achilles fails as a model hero or even as a mediocre hero and is prone to a critical, tragic flaw. While the body of Achilles is that of a hero his soul is that of a brigand and his actions fall far short of even the most austere moral precepts such as preserving life and refraining from thievery. While heroes should be everything that a people strive to be, paragons of virtue, Achilles indulges in the vices and often partakes in breathtaking displays of barbarism and sadism, making him unfit as a role model.
It was perhaps never Homers intention to sport Achilles as a hero to be imitated or to inspire generations of men to greatness but instead as a cautionary reminder of how we can become if we indulge our frustration with living in a world out of our control and forget our bonds of humanity and fellowship. In this capacity, Homer’s Achilles does become a useful educational tool for compelling us to remember how the mighty are fallen and how we might evade such a corruption of character ourselves.